When I was eight-years-old my mother appeared at my classroom door and we began our walk. We walked for days across the wide open New Mexico desert, straddling a cracked and crumbling Route 66 with no water or food. The journey would lead to an eclectic cast of saints and sinners tucked into a Catholic boarding house for Navaho women in the fading jewel of Gallup, New Mexico. It would lead to steely mental institutions, literally, pants-on-fire, and a murdered rooster (strictly self-defense, I swear!).
This work has been a labor of love and at times a bumpy self-examination. I wrote it in an effort to share my story and to illuminate the countless families navigating the turbulent waters of mental illness and homelessness. Every time I have a reading or speak about this book, I am approached by another good soul with a sibling, child or parent suffering the paralyzing symptoms of schizophrenia. I was luckier than many. My mother was defiant and loving in the face of her illness and I wouldn’t be here were it not so.
The Long Hot Walk
After walking all day, we had dinner in a run-down diner and found a trailer park that had a makeshift launderette in a drab little cinder block room. It consisted of three washers and dryers and a couple of molded plastic chairs that were scuffed and ready for the landfill.
I sat on the stairs out in the growing darkness, smelling detergent and residue from the dryers as it mingled with the frying of various trailer park dinners.
A chill crept up across the desert as stars winked on. It gets cold in the desert at night. You wouldn’t think so in the baking oven heat of the day.
My feet were sore and I was so tired that I imagined myself to be an overcooked noodle as I slumped my ribs over my knees. I took a look at my shoes, black numbers, open on the top with buckles on the sides. Mary Jane’s. They were shoes made of dirt now. I couldn’t even see my socks through the top strappy part, just dust. I attempted to wipe some of it off and clean them with my thumb and a bit of spit, but it just seemed to rearrange the dirt, so I gave it up.
No one came to do their laundry that night, which was good because we looked pretty suspicious, hanging around with no clothes to wash and no money with which to wash them.
After awhile, sleep got the best of me and I curled up on the washing machines. I’d wake throughout the night, fluorescent lights painting everything with a green tinge, including Ma. She was always awake, sitting up straight in that hard chair, lips working, as if reading an invisible book or magazine. Now and then she’d laugh, her eyes glassy and unfocused. I’d turn over and go back to sleep.
I woke up in the morning, stiff and cold. She was still in the chair. She looked up at me and said, “Well, good morning.”